For most of its history the White House has been a nuclear reactor or an operating room; a contained and semi-occluded space in which processes of great power and mystery unfold. A tourist standing in Lafayette Park might squint at the pearly mansion behind the layers of high fence, which now threatens to become a permanent feature of the D.C. landscape, along with the standing army of National Guardsmen fanned across the federal district, and reasonably wonder: What do people even do in there?
In reality, tourists can no longer squint at the White House from Lafayette Park itself, which is blocked off by an escarpment of temporary barriers. Even the media must walk around the exclusion zone and enter the executive complex at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. And after four years of Donald Trump and his Twitter account, the inner workings of America’s seat of presidential power also feel a lot less mysterious, and certainly less pristine.
From “the very beginning” of the Trump administration, explained Associated Press reporter and White House Correspondents’ Association president Zeke Miller, the executive mansion under Donald Trump was a hive of “weaponized leaks between different factions that the president himself was somehow a player in and often complaining about.” One benefit is that until about a month-and-a-half ago it was possible to log on to Twitter and get a pretty accurate primary source account of the administration’s fault lines, something that “made our jobs, in a way, very easy, even if there were stressful and long hours.”
The sources of anxiety for a White House reporter, and for the person who represents the White House press corps both to the administration and to the world at large, are changing in the Biden era. In early February, the Daily Beast reported that Biden administration officials were reaching out to reporters with the apparent aim of finding out what they planned on asking at press briefings. This raised concerns that officials were engaged in a process of “picking and choosing” which journalists to call on, as one unnamed reporter put it in a WHCA Zoom call, according to the Beast. (Miller’s yearlong term as WHCA president ends this summer: “I give up the gavel this coming July 14th at 11:59 PM, and not a moment too soon,” he seemed to half-joke.)
Miller told me there is no evidence Biden staff are screening questions, and no sign that the administration is punishing journalists who refuse to cooperate with them. The inquiries are within the normal run of things—just as a journalist’s refusal to answer them would be. “They would not be doing their jobs if they weren’t trying to figure out what I was interested in, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I told them exactly what I was going to ask,” Miller said.
Miller himself is clearly an exception to the supercharged hyperpartisan messaging approach that characterizes the world of political infotainment.
The Biden presidency has brought some significant changes in how the press conducts its work inside the White House. Daily briefings are back, even if the coronavirus means that reporters from 90-odd outlets have to share just 14 available seats in the briefing room, based on a system of “rotations within rotations” that Miller and the WHCA helps manage. Under Trump, it would sometimes take days after an Oval Office signing ceremony for the text of an executive order to become available; now journalists get a background briefing on the new measure, or even an on-record appearance from someone who had worked on it. When pundits and journalists talk about Biden restoring normality to the White House, they’re often referring to this newfound routinization of a recently-Dadaist executive branch. As Miller put it, “there’s a more definite workday” for the media under Biden than there was when Trump was president.
But reporters can’t let up pressure on an administration simply because it appears to be more functional and less effusively anti-media than Donald Trump’s. “We’re being adversarial without necessarily being adversaries,” Miller said of the Biden-era White House press corps. “Are the COVID vaccination targets truly ambitious or is this a case of under-promising and over-delivering? What is actually the deal with the school reopening plan? Is it one day a week, is the goal five days a week? These are tough questions for an administration to answer, and we’re seeing the Biden administration struggle with them. But we do that without raising our voices.” The temperature has been lowered—within the White House, at least.
Outside the White House, one half of the country suspects that the 2020 election was stolen by the other half, which seems inclined to brand the losers as domestic terrorists.
Miller himself is clearly an exception to the supercharged hyperpartisan messaging approach that characterizes the world of political infotainment. He speaks quickly and gives almost no hint of any obvious analytic biases, or of an outlook that strays outside a studiously neutral curiosity. A graduate of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, in the Five Towns area of Long Island, he grew up in a large Jewish community that he says “now seems much more politicized” than it did in the ’90s and 2000s. He arrived at Yale planning to become an engineer. “Math got hard at a certain point,” he joked. Instead, he discovered the Yale Daily News.
Miller’s path to eight consecutive years of covering the White House—first for BuzzFeed, then for Time, and since 2017 for the Associated Press—began late in the 2008 presidential race, when Congressman Chris Shays, John McCain’s Connecticut co-chair, told Miller, then a student journalist for the Daily, that he expected the Arizona Republican to lose. The story made it to the top half of the Drudge Report and brought enough traffic to crash the newspaper’s website. Miller’s reporting also “sparked a whole round of other Republicans going, yeah this is a lost cause,” he recalled. Miller was thus introduced to the double thrill of witnessing history—in this case, the beginning of the end of a presidential campaign—while having an effect on what large numbers of total strangers saw and read and thought. “I admit I got a little bit of a competitive edge, or a taste of it,” he said.
Part of the appeal of a seat in the White House press corps is the chance to witness firsthand numerous moments on which the world seems to turn. Some of those episodes can be almost indescribably strange. Miller was present for the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, where much of the weirdness lay in little matters of protocol that only the people on hand could appreciate—the pairings of Secret Service agents with North Korean security officers guarding the doorways, or Kim Jong Un’s sister, herself one of the hermit kingdom’s most shadily powerful figures, pulling out a chair for her brother as the American delegation watched in bemusement.
Miller’s career has also brought him to his share of disaster zones―the five hours he spent in the press group shadowing Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life massacre were among the hardest of his life, Miller said. The effect of world-shifting tragedies on individual human beings isn’t abstract to him. “I’ve got a lot of patience for how people grieve,” said Miller.
In December of 1988, a year before Miller was born, Joseph K. Miller, his paternal grandfather and Hebrew namesake and a widely respected community figure who served as treasurer of the Orthodox Union, was onboard Pan Am flight 103 when terrorists working with the support of the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi brought down the plane over Lockerbie, Scotland. According to a recent article in Mishpacha, Miller’s tefillin were found “astonishingly intact” near the crash site two weeks after the attack.
Though Miller can come off as a paragon of professional detachment, it is impossible for him to see journalism as an activity whose stakes and proportions are ever more or less than human. “Everyone has those personal traumas,” he says. “But for me, coming from a family that lived that and still does live it in a lot of different ways ... It’s just an added reminder for how to make sure that you don’t get lost in the story.”
One big challenge for today’s press might be recognizing the existence of important stories outside of itself. The first two months of 2021 have been a time of overlapping and cross-cutting intramedia culture wars. The New York Times and Slate are beset with internal racism scandals. The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol led to calls from press colleagues for some right-wing media competitors to be thrown off the airwaves.
The White House press corps, which consists of a diversity of outlets—ranging widely in ideological orientation, size and respectability—that cover actual events within a discrete physical space, can look like a throwback to a time before this embittered industrywide reckoning. As Miller puts it, the White House press corps is a “broad cross-section,” encompassing Newsmax and the Huffington Post, along with Fox and MSNBC. Standards are maintained through the pool system, in which a designated reporter provides detailed running updates on the president’s activities that are available to the rest of the media. The day’s pool reporter must provide an accurate and helpful account of events regardless of whether they work for Fox or CNN—a standard that is still taken very seriously.
“Speaking for myself and broadly for everyone who’s been on the beat every day ... We’re there as the eyes and ears of the American public,” said Miller. It’s an ethos that neutralizes many of the contradictions facing the news industry, at least within the community of reporters who cycle through the White House.
But journalism also faces more existential questions than who should be allowed to say what by whom. Under Trump, it became common for journalists to openly wonder about the morality of their own profession. Did it still make sense to present opposing sides of every issue—or did that make the practice of journalism complicit in a host of social and political evils? Was objective reporting of facts even possible? And even if objectivity is possible, is it simply one value among many, something which should often be disregarded in the service of some higher value or truth?
In Miller’s view, Donald Trump’s presidency often proved the indispensability of existing journalistic values. “I’m gonna be more fair and objective, and let the actions speak for themselves,” he said of his approach to the former president. “And the actions often spoke more than I could possibly write about.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.